“What time should my baby or child go to bed?”
Almost every family I have worked with as a Family Sleep Institute Certified Child Sleep Consultant has this question when we first start working together. A too-late bedtime is also the most common problem I see in families who are struggling to get their baby or child to sleep through the night. Sure, there are sleep associations and bad nap schedules – but 99% of the time, bedtime is also too late. But finding the right bedtime for your baby or child can be hard! In this week’s blog post, I’ll share the secret of getting your baby or toddler to bed at the best time.
Signs That Your Child’s Bedtime is Too Late
If your child’s current schedule is working, you don’t need to change a single thing! But when I start working with a family who needs help with their child’s sleep I usually look first at the bedtime, because night sleep is SO important to our little ones! Here are a couple of common signs that your baby or child’s bedtime may be too late:
- They are falling asleep at the dinner table
- They are often fussy before bed, or they fight bedtime
- You notice a burst of energy before bedtime
- It takes them a long time to fall asleep (longer than 30 minutes)
- Night waking (waking up overnight and crying or calling out)
- Early waking in the morning (before 5:30 a.m.)
- Increased crankiness or fussiness; toddlers may have a lot of temper tantrums
- They fight naps or naps are often short (less than 1 hour)
If you are experiencing any or all these signs…bedtime is likely too late. But fear not – help is just a few paragraphs away!
The Benefits of an Earlier Bedtime
Babies and young children’s body clocks are programmed to get sleepy in the early evening. When your child’s ideal “sleep wave” is missed, her body produces stress hormones. These stress hormones cause a “second wind” to help her fight the fatigue, but they also make it harder for your child to fall asleep and stay asleep. That’s why overtired babies and children are more likely to wake up overnight or super early (before 5:30 a.m.) in the morning.
An early bedtime prevents this second wind. Early bedtimes help your baby or child fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer. Most of your child’s deep sleep happens before midnight. Deep sleep (also called non-REM sleep) is the most restorative sleep possible. It helps the body repair itself. It can also repay a sleep debt which simply means that if your child is overtired, lots of deep sleep will help her recover.
Many parents fear early bedtimes because they assume that an early bedtime means an earlier wake-up. But the opposite is true! Here’s why: By getting your baby or child to bed when she first becomes tired in the evening, she will have a smoother ride to sleep. This smooth ride will allow her to stay asleep overnight, sleep later in the morning, and wake up rested and refreshed. A well-rested baby or child will also be relaxed enough to take good quality naps. Sleep begets sleep!
How to Determine the Right Bedtime
It can be tempting to keep the same bedtime each night, but your baby or child’s bedtime should vary slightly from day to day. The quality of your child’s naps, her mood and behavior, and how active she was that day can all affect when she becomes tired in the evening. The key to a well-rested child is to have a bedtime that is both early and flexible. Below are a few guidelines that can help lead you to the best bedtime for your baby or child.
The Right Bedtime is Between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Most babies and toddlers on a good nap schedule will be ready for bed between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. Bedtimes later than 7:00 p.m. are too late for most children, but there may be a few exceptions. If your child is taking good quality naps and seems calm and happy into the evening, she may be able to handle a 7:30 p.m. bedtime.
But there may also be days when your child needs an extra early bedtime of 5:30 p.m. Daycare or school can disrupt naps, requiring an extra early bedtime. Each time your child drops a nap, an extra early bedtime may be needed to help her adjust. The extra early bedtime can be a lifesaver on bad nap or no-nap days. It can also help your baby or child recover from a sleep debt due to illness, travel, or other disruptions.
If these times seem surprisingly early, keep in mind that our little ones’ body clocks set their schedule. The circadian rhythm of babies, toddlers and young children prompts their bodies to release melatonin (the sleepy hormone) in the early evening. It’s also not true that older toddlers and preschoolers automatically “need” a later bedtime. As naps are dropped and activity levels change throughout early childhood, bedtime may consistently be a moving target.
Watch Your Child’s Mood and Behavior in the Late Afternoon
To help you “fine tune” the bedtime each day, I recommend you watch your child’s behavior starting between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., and into dinnertime.
Babies and young children go through stages of drowsiness as their bodies produce sleepy hormones in the early evening. These stages have signs that look something like this:
- Early sleepy signs: Slowdown in activity, less interest in toys or others, less vocal or social
- “Urgent” sleepy signs: Rubbing eyes, staring off, eyes look “glazed”
- Overtired: Fussiness, irritability, clinginess, hyperactivity or a “burst of energy”
Try to start your bedtime routine when you see early sleepy signs or even a little before. If you see your baby rubbing her eyes or staring off, it’s probably time to wrap up the routine and get her to bed. While older toddlers and preschoolers have a longer window between these stages, babies can go from tired to overtired very quickly.
In order to clearly see your child’s mood and behavior it’s also helpful to keep things low key starting around dinnertime. Turn off electronics and dim bright lights in your home – these can interfere with your child’s natural production of sleepy hormones in the early evening.
Be Flexible and Remember That Every Day is Different
A common mistake is putting your child to bed at the same time every night or keeping her awake a set number of hours before bedtime. But every day is different, so your bedtime should be flexible, too. Did your child have an off-nap day? Was she extra active? Has she been ill? How was last night? These things will affect when she becomes tired in the evening.
A strategy that can be helpful is to have a bedtime “zone” based on how naps went and what you are seeing in your baby or child between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. If your child usually moves quickly through the stages of sleepiness, start your bedtime routine earlier (before you even see early sleepy signs). This way you are mostly done with the routine and might have time for an extra story or two if your child is still in good spirits.
And remember: If you aren’t entirely sure when bedtime should be, it’s better to err on the side of earlier. There is nothing wrong with your baby or child hanging out contently in their crib or bed while they wait to fall asleep.
Do the Best You Can
You may be reading this article and wondering how on earth it is possible to pick up your child from daycare, come home, get dinner on the table, and put her to bed by 6:30 p.m. each night. Life happens! Just do the best you can. Try these tips during the hectic work week:
- Get them to bed as early as possible, as often as possible. During the week, try for the earliest bedtime possible – even 15 minutes earlier can make a big difference! Protect the sleep schedule (good naps & early bedtimes) on weekends.
- Simplify dinnertime. Have simple meals ready to eat during the week. Another option is to feed the kids first and get them to bed. Then you can have some uninterrupted time to prepare and eat your own dinner.
- Shorten the bedtime routine. Your “express” bedtime routine during the week might only be 10 – 15 minutes and mean fewer stories or no bath. Check with your childcare provider to see if they can do a “pre-routine” of feeding and changing your baby or toddler into her nighttime clothes before you pick them up. Keep the car ride home low-key and soothing.
It is always hard when you must put your child to bed so soon after coming home from work. I get it. Try to remember that this is all temporary, and that a well-rested child and family are much happier!
How to Get Started with an Earlier Bedtime
If your baby or toddler is going to bed only slightly too late each night, the move to an earlier bedtime is easy: Simply start your routine based on the early sleepy signs you are seeing.
If your bedtime is currently much later, then your entire schedule may need tweaking. I suggest you read my blog article on biological nap schedules because the timing of naps can impact when your baby or child gets tired in the evening. Day and night sleep are all related – you need both to have a well-rested child.
The Key Take-Away: The Right Bedtime is Early and Flexible
An earlier bedtime can help your baby or child fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer. This helps them take better naps during the day and results in a happier child!
But there is no “set” bedtime for your baby or child. Bedtime should vary each day based on the quality of naps, your child’s mood and behavior, and her sleepy signs. Most babies and toddlers need a bedtime between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m., but an extra early bedtime of 5:30 p.m. may be needed if your child is short on sleep. If you can’t get your baby or child to bed as early as needed due to daycare or work, do the best you can and protect early bedtimes on weekends.
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What time does your child go to bed at night? Tell me in the comments below!